If there's one thing you can give the NHL credit for on the rules and discipline front, it's that the league is well aware every system needs constant tweaking.
Since exiting the 2004-05 lockout with a crackdown on obstruction fouls that led to revved up offenses, the league has tinkered with rule changes every summer in an attempt to make the game safer, faster and more entertaining. This summer was no different.
We talked earlier this week about some of the changes the league is testing, or at least said it would be be testing, this preseason. Those rule updates are joined by a pretty significant slate of already approved changes that cover everything from icing to headshots to how a player wears his socks.
As always, it remains to be seen exactly how the NHL will apply these changes in practice. But there's no shortage of things to watch for this season if you're a rules nerd like me.
According to the indubitable Elliotte Friedman, there's been a slight adjustment to the language of the ever-controversial Rule 48, which governs illegal checks to the head.
This is not considered an official rule change, which involves a lengthier process. Instead, the language was altered for greater clarity. Now Rule 48.1 declares an illegal check to the head as "a hit resulting in contact with an opponent's head where the head was the main point of contact and such contact to the head was avoidable."
For comparison, here is the old language:
A hit resulting in contact with an opponent's head where the head is targeted and the principal point of contact is not permitted.
That might seem like a small change - indeed, it's small enough that Friedman points out it's not considered an official rule change - but ideally it will continue to cut down on unnecessary and avoidable headshots in the league.
Targeted was always a word that gave many people pause when talking about Rule 48. It implies a degree of premeditation to actually hit an opponent's head, something that is always up for debate. The new wording is very similar to the wording of boarding.
Boarding, which as we've discussed before at DBD, is a penalty of result. It doesn't matter how or why you did it or even if you didn't hit the guy very hard. If an opponent is standing in a danger area and you send him awkwardly into the boards, you've committed boarding. Given the change to the rule 48 language, and given that both rules have similar "out clauses" involving a player moving just before impact or if the player put himself in a vulnerable position, I expect the NHL is trying to make rule 48 a penalty of result as well.
I think that's the correct train of thought. Boarding is a penalty of result because the danger of an awkward collision with the boards when starting from 2-6 feet out, even if the hit that caused it was minimal, are incredibly serious things like broken necks and concussions. The league decided a long time ago that the onus was on the hitter to be 100 percent positive he was going to make a clean check, that the hitter was responsible for anything that happened after the contact (barring a few situations) no matter how violent the contact itself was.
The league has come around to the idea that concussions, while not as bad as a broken neck, are a very serious injuries with possible lifelong repercussions, and they seem to want to treat hits where the head is the main point of impact in the same way as boarding, where it doesn't matter why you did it anymore, it only matters that you did it in the first place. Of course, they are trying to balance this with the fact that the head is still attached to the torso and shoulders, and checks that start and mainly impact the torso and shoulders are still very much allowed.
Because of this, there will still be gray areas and arguments and inexplicable suspensions and non-suspensions - heck, we've already had one preseason incident with Rostislav Klesla and Jordan Nolan. There will be too many concussions on avoidable blows to the head. There will be lots of screaming about the definition of avoidable. There will be even more screaming about what the "main point of contact" actually means, debating whether brushing by a shoulder on the way through the chin is enough to make it a full body hit.
This language change won't take away all the controversy about every potential Rule 48 violation. But it's another step in the right direction for this rule.
Here's a rule change that's very, very minor in terms of impact but will make me extremely happy.
The attainable pass language from Rule 81.5 has been deleted. The officials are to wave off icing only if the player touches the puck.
The "attainable pass" language references a clause that used to be in the icing rule, stating that an attempted and attainable pass was not to be ruled icing. The logic makes sense - if you attempt to make a good pass to a teammate and he just muffs it, it's not really what the icing rule is trying to prevent.
However, in practice, this was extremely subjective and almost never used. It's driven Razor crazy on many a broadcast, and it's boggled me as well. Now it's gone. Good call, NHL.
A rule change that's just starting to gain some attention in preseason games is the narrowing of the nets. While the face of the goal remains six feet by four feet, some changes in the curvature of the corners as well as the back supports has led to a four inch decrease in depth.
The net effect is not only more area for skaters behind the goal line, but a quicker path for wraparound attempts. With a narrower back frame sitting on the ice, skaters will be able to cut in a quicker circle to change the point of attack and, at least ideally, fewer plays will die on the side of the net itself.
A really good graphic illustrating the difference from the old nets to the new ones can be found here, at the great Puck-Rakers blog by the Columbus Dispatch.
As noted in that article, there are two other minor changes to the net frame itself that will likely be in play at least once this year. The first is that the back, curved support for the top of the net has been welded to the back, not the insides, of the front frame. This will allow a much less obstructed look at the goal line from the overhead replay.
And the posts and crossbar themselves are narrower, which will affect the angle of shots that carom off of them. Given those new angles and the quicker wraparounds, goalies could be scrambling a bit to adjust in the early part of the season.
In one of the rule changes that has been a long time coming, all players with fewer than 25 games NHL experience entering this season must wear a visor on their helmet.
Visors certainly won't prevent every facial injury - even full cages can't claim to do that. But they are a generally good insurance measure against things that come high and fast at eye level, things like potentially orbital-bone-shattering slapshots.
Late last season, Nathan Thompson of the Tampa Bay Lightning likely had his orbital bone saved from a Mike Green slapshot by a visor that gave its life for the cause. Thompson did get a pretty serious cut, but it wasn't anywhere near as serious an injury as what happened to, say, Marc Staal when he took a slap shot to the face.
The Stars have a few young players who could be among the last in the league without a visor, including Cody Eakin, who played both with and without visor last year, and Jamie Benn, who has also removed his visor since entering the league.
Perhaps as an offshoot of this change, the NHL has also added a rule that bans players from removing their helmets before a fight. This used to be considered the "classy" move if one player had a visor and one didn't, but now any player who removes his helmet before a fight will receive an additional two minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct.
I think the publicized rationale behind this will be to prevent the rare-but-really-dangerous moments where a guy gets dropped with a punch and smacks his head on the ice (or the boards) when he falls. I've only seen it a time or two, but ice wins falling head vs. ice every time, even with a helmet on. It's a really quick way to get a closed skull fracture or serious concussion without a helmet.
Of course, many are also saying it's just another way for the league to curb fighting. I'm not as sure about that, especially as the guys who really make a living fighting will probably mutually agree to remove their helmets anyway and just accept the matching minors. An extra two minutes that doesn't put your team at a disadvantage doesn't seem like it should mean that much if a fight seems somehow necessary.
Other Equipment Changes
Of all the rule changes the offseason, the one that's gotten the most attention in the first week or so of the preseason has been the emphasis on enforcing existing guidelines about how equipment must be worn.
By far the biggest attention grabber here is the outlawing of the jersey tuck, which is most notably worn by Alexander Ovechkin but has also made appearances on Matt Duchene, Brad Marchand and David Perron, among others. Alex Semin became the first guy penalized under the rules enforcement in a Wednesday preseason game.
The NHL is trying to justify this as a player safety issue, and there was apparently a case in Europe where a guy somehow got his face torn up on a back protector of another player, but I'm not so sure I buy this as a rationale. I can't decide which conspiracy theory I buy here - the one that the NHL is trying to quash all attempts at actual personality in the league or the one that the NHL is trying to prepare for ads on the bottom back of the jersey.
Along with a jersey flowing freely down the back, the NHL also wants the jersey to flow freely all the way down the arm to the gloves. Many guys, particularly those who fought, had started to wear jerseys with sleeves that stopped midway down the elbow pad. Others just scrunched the longer sleeves up onto the pad during the game. This is no longer allowed.
The shinguards technically have to be covered by socks too, but no one seems to be all that upset about this one.
Finally, player pants cannot have the giant rips up the inseam like some players like to wear. This line from the uniform rules graphic made me giggle particularly hard.
Players are permitted to alter their pants for comfort and performance-related reasons; however, the pant leg must remain one uninterrupted uniform color as to not expose the bare leg/sock in the thigh area.
There were players (and I'm looking directly at you, Jeff Halpern), who did have quite a lot of bare leg showing on photographs from certain angles with the way they used to mangle their pants. Since this rule really just deals with the ripping any not wearing them as baggy as you'd like, there seems to be very little outcry over it as well. But I will miss the extremely amusing pictures.